Smile Politely

Fires in the Sky is art about movies named after a movie about aliens

This Friday 6-8 pm during gallery hours*, Urbana’s Independent Media Center is opening a new show entitled Fires in the Sky by local artist Derek W. Clem. I had a chance to sit down with Derek, learn a little about him and his previous work, and get the details on his current focus. The short of it? You’re not going to want to miss it.

SP: So who is Derek W. Clem from Champaign (not Derek Wayne Clem from Independence, Kansas, as your website will have us note)?

Derek Clem: I was raised in St. Joseph and Champaign, Ill. I’m married to an X-Phile, who is also an artist and fellow movie lover. We married at the Art Theater here in Champaign. We have two kitties, Pipsa and Fern. I’m also an adjunct art instructor at Richland Community College in Decatur, Ill.

My favorite movie is Hook, and my favorite actor is Tom Hanks (real original, I know). I also love Whoopi Goldberg a lot. My studio is in my basement, but when it rains a lot I have to work in my living room – darn puddles. I create while watching movies, but only movies I’ve seen multiple times. When I look away from a piece I’m working on, I like having the visuals to look at. You don’t get that with music or podcasts.

SP: If you could have one unconventional super power (being able to play any instrument after just picking it up or speed reading books with 100% memory retention as opposed to flying or invisibility) what would it be and why?

Clem: Man, I love that book memory retention example you gave. I’m not much of a book reader, but if I had that power I would be. I heard President Obama once say that he’d choose to have the ability to understand, speak, and write every language on Earth. I love that idea. It would open up so many possibilities for my work regarding influences from foreign language films. Choosing my own though, I’d like to never be tired and never have to sleep. I feel like sleep is the biggest eater of time.

SP: The bio on your website mentions that you ritualistically watch one film every day. What’d you watch today?
Clem: I watched Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech and Michel Hazanavicious’ The Artist. I’m currently taking my wife on a 5-month-long chronological viewing of all the Oscar Best Picture winners, as she took me on a yearlong chrono-viewing of the X-Files in 2012. She shared her thing with me, so we thought I should share mine.

SP: So have you always watched a film every day or was that something that was inspired by this Best Picture project?
Clem: I started watching a movie everyday very early in life. My parents divorced when I was very young, but I was lucky enough to see them both every day. My dad worked nights and would rest during the day and my mom worked days but attended night school, so whenever they were sleeping or studying, my sister and I would watch movies. I’ve missed days here and there — my honeymoon, for instance — but otherwise I’ve been pretty consistent.

SP: Would you say your parents’ divorce has impacted your work?

Clem: All of my work speaks in some way to the fact that I grew up in two separate households equally. Some of my past work has explored my family dynamic, and I did a project examining the road and landscape of I-74, as it connected my two homes. Now, for the past ten years, I’ve been focusing on a prominent activity that I grew up doing in my homes. I think it’s important to note that the influence has all been very positive and that I don’t have any negative feelings about the divorce, as it gave me two great step-parents and families that I love and admire very much.  

SP: So tell me about your show. What can we expect to see and feel?
Clem: I’ve often tried to get people to get excited about specific films with my work. I know that it’s impossible to get everyone excited about a movie regardless of how well tickets sell. That’s sort of where this work stems from: the subjectivity in film; how one rates a film. Roger Ebert gave Hook 2 stars. That’s a thumbs down. I started thinking about star ratings and what they mean. Especially 2.5 stars. What is that? Good? Bad? A cop out? I would assume a large portion of my favorite movies hover in the 2.5 range. Expanding from star ratings, I started to think about other various relationships the star symbol has with movie culture. A movie star – former movie star – walk of fame – the glitz, the glam. Will we get to a point where we armature the bodies of our celebrities with the constellations that currently wear mythic characters?  How do these associations relate to those of us who exist outside of the business? 

The exhibit is called Fires in the Sky and consists of works made with a wide range of materials. You will see paintings, collage work using various paints and promotional material from films, stickers, installations using VHS tape and mylar balloons, and found objects.  

SP: Do you prefer to work within specific movie genres? Do you have a favorite film genre to watch and/or a favorite to work within?
Clem: If personal nostalgia were a genre, that would be my answer. I prefer to work with the movies I grew up with because they’re my favorites, and I enjoy being surrounded by them. It’s just a pleasure thing. I usually work with movies that exist or have existed in the popular culture. I want there to be accessibility to the work. If someone walks away with a “Hey, that painting you made of Jim Carrey… I love Ace Ventura,” I’d be thrilled because I inspired that moment of recollection. In the same vein, if I got a “Why’d you make a piece about Cop and a Half? That movie sucks!” I’d be thrilled for the same reason. If someone isn’t familiar with any of the movies I’ve referenced, perhaps they’ll seek them out. Otherwise, my favorite genres to watch would be Sci-Fi/Fantasy or Oscar winning/nominated films.

SP: Sometimes your work borrows from popular movie posters/images. What do you hope these usages of recognizable mainstream movie art are communicating to your audience?
Clem: Generally, I enjoy creating a moment of recollection. At Universal Studios, for example, the rides are mostly crap, but I love the place because everything reminds me of important movies in my life. My favorite Sufjan Stevens album is Illinois because I recognize the references. My dad is a good example because he won’t go to art gallery unless my work is in it. I like that a guy like him can walk into an unfamiliar place and have a moment of recollection like, “Oh man, I love Saturday Night Fever.” I like to elicit comfort through familiarity like Hollywood does with remakes and sequels, for example. The work for this show, though, diverges from that, focusing more on curiosities I have with perceived worth.

SP: Is there one specific director/actor/cinematographer/reviewer that you would call the biggest inspiration for what you do? You mentioned Urbana native Roger Ebert…
Clem: Being a multimedia artist, I admire any actor or director with range. I am influenced by Quentin Tarantino who openly and abundantly references films in his own films. I love those “Oh yeah, I know what that’s from,” moments of recollection he creates so sophisticatedly.
Roger Ebert was the movie critic; he remains the most familiar and was the most trusted. I grew up watching him and lots of other people from here, always felt lucky that we grew up in the same area. As I mentioned, this interest in the star symbol came from reading his reviews. I was reading some of his 2.5-star reviews and wondering what that meant and then fell down the rabbit hole. It’s controversial because it’s a thumbs down for Ebert, even though he used the 4-star system. It’s such a strange place to exist. Not great, not hated, just existing – possibly forgettable. It could be considered the worst place a movie could exist, but that makes it interesting to me, a place for personal discovery.

Fires in the Sky will open at the Urbana IMC Gallery on Friday, March 4th from 6-8 p.m. during normal gallery hours. The exhibit’s closing ceremony will be on Saturday, March 26th also from 6-8 p.m. Keep an eye on the Facebook page for updates. 

* Editor’s Note: The original story published had the incorrect time of the March 4th hours.


About the author…

Carly is a current senior studying English at U of I. She spends her time watching campy horror movies, playing music, and hanging with her dog Archer. You can generally find her making impulse buys at Target or on Twitter @snarlyjones.

More Articles